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Saturday, June 07, 2008

Commentary: Examining the Feasibility of a Parcel Tax

Somewhat lost in the midst of the election is the ongoing discussion over a possible parcel tax.

One of the key issues that the district faces is the ability to control its own revenue sources. This is actually a statewide problem because as budget revenues statewide get tight, schools feel the pinch.

Right now though the GOP on a national level seems reluctant to admit it, this is one of the worst economic times I can remember in the past 25 years. You have a disastrous housing market which will lower the amount of property tax revenue to schools. You have a basic crisis with gas prices which finally threatening to spread to the rest of the economic sphere.

As Bruce Colby, CBO of Davis Joint Unified noted, the state budget in the face of this recession with be challenge for a number of years. This means that there will be fluctuating amounts of state money coming to school districts.

Despite recent budget crises of its own, Davis Joint Unified is actually in better position than most school districts to weather this storm.

First, they have a strong support base locally that has provided them with a parcel tax.

Second, when a crisis did arise this year, the Davis Schools Foundation was able to raise an additional $1.7 million.

As bad as things looked in January and February, we are getting off almost unscathed in June.

But the problem is that while the Davis Schools Foundation was able to raise $1.7 million this year, it is a one-time influx of money, to help the district on an emergency basis.

According to Bruce Colby's numbers, an annual parcel tax of $80 would raise the equivalent amount of the $1.7 million. That is $80 on top of what people approved just seven months ago in November.

Will voters in bad economic times be willing to pay out an additional $80? Hard to say.

But there are more complicating factors. Because of the fact this is a Presidential Election, we can expect between 77 and 80 percent voter turnout in Davis. Last year, the turnout was in the 20s for the school board election. Many of those people were committed to school issues and that is why they tend to look toward those type of elections to place the parcel tax that required two-thirds of the voters to approve it.

Given a wider audience, we have to have look to see if that general election electorate will be as supportive of a parcel tax as others.

On the other hand, I think that the electorate is engaged on this issue. As we talked to community members, the schools along with national issues were tops on people's minds. Still this would have to be a leap of faith. And it is a fight that the district cannot afford to lose. We know what an additional $1.7 million in budget cuts look like. It is not a scare tactic to suggest that if they lose, they will be laying off 100 teachers. It is unfortunately the truth.

I know the district will look into their options and will be carefully planning their course. That is the wise and prudent thing to do, but at some point, I think they have to recognize that they really have no other choice and they are going to have to get good polling to tell them how to pitch this to the public.

We cannot in the end, I think, punish our children for the mistakes that adults have made. The district has worked very hard to get its fiscal house in order, and I think they deserve a shot to not have to lay off 100 teachers.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting